Feeding Your Dog Well - An Overview

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Now more than ever, people recognize the connection between good eating habits and good health. Food has been implicated in several important human diseases including diabetes mellitus, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer. Nutrition plays a similar role in determining the health and longevity of dogs, which are primarily affected by three essentials:

  1. Genetics, over which we have limited influence.
  2. Environment, which we strive to make as safe as possible.
  3. Nutrition, which is the one factor over which we can exert the greatest control as pet owners.

It is natural then for us to pay closer attention to what our dogs eat in order to maximize their overall health and life expectancy.

Need-To-Know Facts About Pet Nutrition

Veterinary nutrition is a scientific field that has exploded in the past several decades, and our dogs have reaped the benefits. One of the key nutritional concepts that contributes to a high quality of life and long life expectancy is the recognition that not all life stages are the same. In other words, puppies have different nutritional needs than adult dogs, and they in turn have different nutritional needs than senior dogs.

It is a myth that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to canine nutrition reflects the best we have to offer. There are many dog foods labeled ‘For All Life Stages’, but this merely means that the food will support the highest need life stage - a mother dog feeding milk to her puppies. For example, it is intuitively obvious that a 10-year-old couch potato Labrador Retriever does not have the same energy requirement as a 2-year-old Labrador Retriever who is feeding 10 puppies on the milk she produces herself.

Making Smart Feeding Choices for Your Dog

The best strategy for feeding your dog well is to partner with your veterinarian and the veterinary healthcare team and start by performing a nutritional assessment.

Your veterinarian will conduct a thorough physical examination to assess body condition, body composition (lean versus fat), and to determine if there are any medical conditions that require attention or could be addressed nutritionally such as obesity, osteoarthritis, or kidney disease. A proper nutritional assessment requires that you discuss with your veterinarian what food is being fed, how much is being fed, and when mealtimes occur (free feeding or grazing is not recommended). These details help determine the best nutritional choices to make.

Choosing a Nutrition Formulation

Based on your dog's life stage, breed, age, gender (neutered versus intact), size, lifestyle, and body condition/body composition score, your veterinarian can make a specific nutritional recommendation. When choosing a nutritional formulation, be sure to look for a statement on the label that the food has met the requirements of the regulatory agency, Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The food should either have been formulated or fed in feeding trials to meet AAFCO requirements. This means it has been analyzed in an independent laboratory and has been found to be in alignment with regulated levels of specific nutrients, or that it has been fed to live dogs in a feeding trial to determine palatability and bioavailability.

"When choosing a nutritional formulation, be sure to look for a statement on the label that the food has met the requirements of the regulatory agency, Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)."

Once a nutritional formulation has been chosen, it is important to determine the appropriate measured portion to be fed at each meal, as well as determining meal frequency (at least twice daily). It is a myth that dogs can accept responsibility for feeding themselves without overeating. Dog foods today are very tasty and very calorie-dense, which means a little goes a long way. Your veterinarian is the very best resource for a food portion recommendation.


Ongoing Nutritional Maintenance and Your Dog

When nutrient profile, meal size, and meal frequency are in place, it is important to keep track of your dog's weight and body condition to fine-tune portioning. Also, as your dog ages and his body changes, it will be important to adjust the nutritional formulation to meet his changing needs. Puppy, adult dog, and senior dog are three significant life stages that need to be addressed nutritionally. In addition, there are many medical conditions that can be managed or improved by feeding specific nutritional profiles. Your veterinarian is always ready to help you make the best nutritional choices for your dog - at any age, at any size, and in any condition. Take advantage of nutritional science to make the best nutritional choices to enhance life quality and life expectancy for your dog.

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